Flat Earth News: Still more reviews

A second wave of reviews discussed Nick Davies’s book, Flat Earth News this weekend.

Most notable, perhaps, was Kamal Ahmed’s response to Davies‘s charges about the Observer in today’s Independent.

But there was much more commentary on the book in the weekend’s papers.

Peter Preston penned a damning review of Flat Earth News in Saturday’s Guardian, accusing Davies of golden-agism (something Davies denies) and “poison in the prose” — personal attacks on a number of journlaists, particularly those directed at former Observer editor Roger Alton.

Preston is particularly concerned about the claim, central to the Cardiff University report at the heart of the book, that there are fewer journalist today than there were in the past:

But try crunching such numbers and indigestion follows. When I stopped editing [The Guardian] in 1995, the editorial staff was 260 or so. Today, on the most slimline reckoning (excluding internet-only staffing) it’s 430. The Times has risen to about 450 over the past 10 years, adding 100 journalists. And when you look down at the Telegraph’s vast new auditorium of a newsroom, you think of the Emirates Stadium. Fewer people? No: that’s wrong. And more space to fill? Actually, the same Cardiff calculators claim that the Guardian only carries 20 UK stories a day, and the Times 24. From staffs of 400-plus, that doesn’t sound exactly overstretched.

Still, Preston concludes, it would be wrong to dismiss Davies’s book, particularly its case studies of journalism gone wrong.

“One inescapable point about journalism is that, base or lofty, ruthless or idealistic, it is a mess, and always has been,” he writes.

Tim Luckhurst, writing in the Independent on Sunday, was more charitable. Davies has “flung open the doors of a trade that loathes self-analysis like cats loathe swimming,” Luckhurst writes.

“There is a depressing amount of bland ‘churnalism’ going on and only the most deluded will deny it,” he says.

But like Preston, Luckhurst has little time for the alleged internal spat Guardian News & Media that plays out in the book’s pages.

Luckhurst also points out that many of the flaws in journalism are being given a new critical reading on the web: “That which survives unchallenged in print is increasingly exposed to ruthless scrutiny on the web. Cynicism is not a new phenomenon in British journalism, but it has a new foe.”

Sam Leith, in the Sunday Telegraph finds similar faults in the book, but concludes that they are “small cavils”.

“Flat Earth News is for the most part meticulous, fair-minded and utterly gripping. As an industry, we are less and less good at telling the truth, and it does Nick Davies credit to stand up and say so,” Leith writes.

Dan Sabbagh in the Times is concerned that those accused in the book seem not to have had a chance to respond. The book contaiins neither the denials from Kamal Ahmed and Roger Alton about its allegations about the Observer, nor comment defending the Sunday Times from John Witherow, he notes.

The problems with the book start with the discussion of the Observer, Sabbagh says: “it is not certain that what is presented to the reader as carefully researched and factual is not partial at worst, and highly contentious at best.”

Sabbagh concludes: “[W]hat is troubling is that if key parts of the book are arguably inaccurate, what does it say about the rest of the text?”

Despite the outpouring of commentry sparked by the book, some outlets have been fairly silent. Apart from Kevin Marsh’s blog post, the BBC has carried little discussion of the issues it raises Peter Preston noted, this time in the Observer.

Regional newspaper editors has also kept remarkably silent, despite Davies’s allegations about the state of “churnalism” in the regional press.

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